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Book DetailsISBN: 9781743535943
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Book Review: Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett - Reviewed by CloggieA (07 May 2016)
Rush Oh! is the first novel by Australian screenwriter, director and author, Shirley Barrett. it is based on the life of Eden whaler, George “Fearless” Davidson, although Barrett freely admits to taking liberties with known facts. Narrated by his nineteen-year-old daughter, Mary, it tells of the events of the 1908 whaling season in Twofold Bay, giving the reader a fairly comprehensive taste of the life of a whaler in the early twentieth century.
As the eldest daughter of the widower, Mary is charged with taking care of her father, her Uncle Aleck and her five siblings, including the rather wilful sixteen-year-old Louisa, as well as providing meals for his whaling crew of five white men and five aboriginals. But as a young woman, Mary can’t help her own natural inclinations and her attraction to a newly arrived crew member, an ex-Methodist-minister, John Beck. But perhaps John is not quite all he seems.
As Mary deals with the challenges posed by a poor whaling season, Louisa’s mercurial moods and her hopes for her own future, she finds herself in the unenviable position of possibly having done irredeemable damage to her family's only means of support.
That Barrett has done extensive research is apparent on every page, as the reader learns a multitude of interesting facts about the whaling industry, about the behaviour of whales and killer whales, and the relationship between the indigenous people and killer whales.
Barrett uses some marvellous descriptive prose: “My brother raised his harpoon with trembling hands. The notion of plunging such an implement into this mountain of a whale suddenly seemed ludicrous, like sticking a hatpin into an elephant….. he tossed his harpoon, but in his panicked state, it fell short and landed in the water with a dispiriting slap.” Some of Mary’s artwork is delightfully rendered by Matt Canning’s illustrations.
As well as conveying the brutality and desperation that whaling entails, Barrett manages to include plenty of humour (the trip to Boyd Tower by the family, horse, cow and two dogs, one of which sits on the lovingly-made Madeira cake when the whole troupe is menaced by a broody magpie, being just one example), heartache (the loss of a brother, the estrangements within the family) and hope (Mary's longstanding faith in John Beck, and in her reunion with her sister).
While the bulk of the narrative comprises Mary’s memories of 1908, the story is told from the more distant perspective of the now middle-aged Mary, living with her married sister in Ryde, and the penultimate chapter touches on the aftermath of that dramatic year, providing some resolution of questions unanswered. From something that started out as a screenplay, Barrett has created a marvellous debut novel. 4.5 stars
Shirley Barrett is best known for her work as a screenwriter and director. Shirley's first film, Love Serenade won the Camera D'Or (Best First Feature) at Cannes Film Festival in 1996. The script for her film South Solitary won the Queensland Premier's Prize (script) 2010, the West Australian Premier's Literary Prize (script) 2010, and the West Australian Premier's Prize 2010. Rush Oh! is Shirley's first novel. She lives in Sydney, Australia.
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